Closing Argument

Most trials begin with an attorney for each side making statements directly to the jury, or judge in a bench trial, explaining what each intends to prove during the trial proceedings. The trial then ends with the attorneys addressing the judge or jury in a “closing argument,” which has the larger goal of swaying the jury to their side. Trials often place a great deal of information, sometimes quite technical, before the jury, making it difficult to see the broad picture. By summarizing the evidence, testimony, and facts of the case, each attorney’s closing argument is a powerful attempt to crush the opposition while confirming the truth of his own position. To explore this concept, consider the following closing argument definition.

Definition of Argument

Noun

  1. A formal oral presentation of a party’s reasons for or against something at trial
  2. An oral presentation intended to persuade a jury at the end of a trial

Origin

1325-1375   Middle English < Latin argūmentum

The Art of the Closing Argument

The closing argument offers the last opportunity for each party, or their attorneys, to provide a persuasive view of their side of the case. Because of this, trial attorneys often place great emphasis on preparing and delivering their closing arguments. The closing argument has become an art form in and of itself, often eliciting the most dramatic presentations of the trial. Unlike presentation of evidence and testimony, which are governed by strict rules as to what can be said, the closing argument appeals to the wisdom, reason, and emotions of the jury. Though they may refer only to evidence presented at trial, closing arguments are often elaborate, sometimes containing flowery descriptions and an appeal to the humanness of the jurors.

Duration of Closing Arguments

Movies and TV shows frequently show closing arguments as short and snappy statements made to sway the jury. In truth, closing arguments often last hours, or even days, depending on the complexity of the case. Closing arguments after trials in which many witnesses were heard, and complicated scientific, financial, or specialized evidence was presented, are used to sum up the information in a more understandable order. While this may take a number of hours in some cases, most attorneys try to keep their closing argument as brief as possible to avoid boring or irritating the jury. The trial judge may limit the length of closing arguments, and entertain objections that information offered on summation is outside the scope of that provided in trial.

Keeping the Jury’s Attention

Attorneys most successful in making closing arguments understand that the style in which they present the case can often be as convincing as the evidence itself. Throughout history, attorneys have turned to sheer rhetoric, often quoting famous writers or public figures, to make their points. Modern juries, accustomed to receiving short bursts of information continually through the use of electronic devices and social media, have short attention spans. Because of this, many modern attorneys make minimal use of fancy speeches, preferring to appeal to the jurors’ emotions through plain speech. In addition to pointed words, most attorneys use photographs, graphs, charts, and other props to make their summations more memorable.

The Trial of Erik and Lyle Menendez

Having been accused of the 1989 grizzly murders of their parents, the Mendez brothers faced trial in 1993 Southern California. Raised in a well-to-do family, 18-year old Erik and 21-year old Lyle Mendez inexplicably gunned down their parents in their home. At the close of the nationally publicized trial, the prosecutor displayed a photograph of the bloodied bodies during her closing argument to drive home the point that the murders had been intentional. In response, the Defendants’ attorney displayed a nude photo of one of the brothers, reiterating the brothers’ claim of sexual abuse. The first trial ended in a mistrial, but the Mendez brothers were retried and convicted of their parents’ murders and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rules of Closing Arguments

A closing argument, also referred to as a “summation” in some cases, may not introduce new evidence, referring only to evidence actually presented during the trial. Other than that, the rules of closing arguments are largely dictated by tradition. In civil actions, the Plaintiff’s attorney makes the first closing argument, the Defendant’s attorney immediately following.

In a criminal action, the prosecuting attorney gives his summation first, the Defendant’s attorney immediately following, then because the prosecution holds the burden of proof, it is allowed to make a “rebuttal” to the defense’s closing arguments. Many trial attorneys find this rebuttal to be extremely important, as it is the last the jury will hear before retiring to deliberate the case.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bench Trial – A trial conducted before a judge without a jury.
  • Objection – A formal protest during trial, expressing disapproval of evidence, testimony, or procedure.
  • Rebuttal – The introduction of evidence to contradict or nullify evidence or legal argument presented by the opposition.

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